I love Y Combinator, and I'm proud to be a part of it, but I've been thinking a lot about this recently...
Many many organizations exist, whose purpose is to filter people who want to do something down to the few percent who are most likely to succeed at that thing, and then to help those people get even more likely to succeed at it.
But that seems like it's actually a kind of operating on diminishing returns. If I take someone who is 90% likely to succeed at something, and help them to become 95%, is that really a better use of my time than if I take someone who is at 50%, and bump them up to 80%?
From an investment point of view of course I can see why people would do the former. But I wonder if the world might be a better place if we could figure out how to do the latter?
Startups are more like a graduate math class. Most people aren't suited to it.
Also, I think your numbers are off. We're not funding people whose chance of succeeding is 90%. I doubt anyone starting a startup has a 90% chance of succeeding. We'd be delighted if our success rate was as high as 50%. Maybe we're bumping people's chances up from 30% to 40%.
That's a good point. It makes me think I would have to start younger (and with more basics), if I wanted to help a lot more people figure out how to do startups. A little bit about my background might help explain why I'm thinking about these things the way I am:
Until I was 16 year old, my maths teachers told me and my parents that I just wasn't suited to the subject. I agreed with them! It seemed impenetrable and boring. Then a kind physics teacher finally explained what maths is really about, and taught me a few of the things I had missed in the last few years. Within a few months I went from nearly bottom of my year to easily top, and eventually got a PhD in pure mathematics.
This experience often makes me suspect there are large numbers of people who could be great in some field, if only someone would help them with the first few steps. Of course I have nothing to back up this suspicion with, and perhaps people have less latent talent than I like to believe. But then again, maybe not.
Also, I think your numbers are off.
Definitely. I chose them more to make my point intuitive than to reflect the reality of startups.
Sounds like you are hoping to follow in your teacher's footsteps and help others via education.
Have you considered writing about your experience? I would love to read about the math truths your teacher imparted.
Also maybe a program like Big Brothers Big Sisters would interest you?
FWIW, I completely agree and am also hoping to help people take the right first steps.
Even then—at least at the college level—a lot of universities have tracks of various kinds; at the University of Arizona, there's a normal 101 / 102 class sequence (where most students land), a 109 class (where students with AP or other credentials land), and a development class the name of which escapes me (where students who basically can't write land). From what I can tell, a lot of high schools do something similar.
Even then, I've seen students in 101 who really can't write, and students in 109 who clearly can't take the pace.
Maybe we're bumping people's chances up from 30% to 40%.
This reminds me of MFA programs, which are basically trying to do the same thing: most people in MFA programs never publish anything substantial. But the goal of the program is to give the kind of boost you're describing.
Well, the real goal might actually be to provide employment for the profs, but at the very least the subsidiary goal of helping 10% go to 20%, or being a catalyst for many people, persists.
However, the 90% are mostly under their own power and need small amounts of guidance and money. The 50% would need a lot more equity and time to learn everything the 90% know. So, the number of people who could participate would be a lot smaller.
Fortunately, there is a very scalable thing that gets people from 50% to 80% and it's answers.onstartups, PG essays, Art of the Start, etc. When people graduate from all that, advanced programs are ready for them.
The question that I'm interested in with Hackers & Founders, is how do we teach thousands of engineers how to build great products, and once doing that, how to you help them build great startups, and then how to you help those founders turn around and be serial entrepreneurs.
Tons of VC's that I talk to tend to turn up their nose at our community, and proceed to tell me, "Send me your Rock Stars".
My question to them, is... "Where do rock star entrepreneurs come from? Do they descend from heaven on a cloud like Mark Zuckerberg? Or, do they try a bunch of things, fail a lot, and then slowly become rock stars?"
I've had beer with 5 out of BusinessWeek's "Top 20 entrepreneurs under 30" two or three years ago. Did I know they were rock stars then? Nope. No clue.
I'm really interested in having H&F, and all the grass roots startup communities that we partner with around the globe be a support system to failing entrepreneurs. If entrepreneurs fail enough for long enough, they generally improve their entrepreneurial skills with each startup they create. Eventually, they become rock stars. YMMV
For tech startups, the distribution of world-changing impact probably closely follows the distribution of investment returns. If it's extremely bimodal, then it makes sense to concentrate on generating big wins.
Most of the applicants to YC have a near zero percent chance of success. With or without help.
But I guess my biggest question has been this: In the event that we (any anyone else going through this process) don't get in, how hard should we spend thinking about that? And what I mean is, every time I've done something I spend some amount of time evaluating how it went and what I learned from it. In the case of YC, it's about the idea + founders, so if we didn't get in, I would need to spend some amount of time evaluating the idea + founders and deciding what it means.
That doesn't scare me, instead I think that's the most exciting part. To be incredibly self-critical is the only way to make great things. As much as we were writing our answers for those who will evaluate them, we were also writing them for ourselves.
Great post, makes me feel more optimistic about the entire ordeal.
Edit: meant winter 2012
See for example:
That said, I don't know how the YC application process could be changed to catch either of those situations.
Filling out the app made the idea more real for all of us, and in the process we discovered that our fourth founder really wasn't passionate about the idea, and isn't ready to leave his day job. Had we not gone through the application process, we probably would have lost a lot of steam in trying to work with a founder that wasn't fully committed.
Also, we've been in a mad rush to get a MVP up and running. The idea is about three weeks old at this point, and the MVP will be up in the next few days. Had we not been motivated by the looming deadline (and wanting to get the app in early) we might have just thought about the idea for months, instead of actually implementing it.
Finally, the idea we're applying with is kind of my baby. I went out and found my co-founders by pitching the idea to everyone I could find, taking feedback, refining, and pitching more. I'm a back-end guy, and I needed front-end co-founders. Now I have a UI ninja and an amazing designer working with me to build a product we all believe in. If it weren't for the application, I would have just fiddled around with the backend code on my own, which doesn't exactly create an engaging user experience.
It almost doesn't matter if we get accepted at this point (not to say that I wouldn't be elated), because we're in such a better spot than we were a month ago.
Thanks for the advice!
I'd also highly suggest moving to the bay area. Meeting the right people and getting your name out there is just SO much easier (we just did this and it's night and day, regardless of Austin being a good startup town as well).
We're in the same boat, we just applied for Winter 2011 with what we think is a great team, solid idea, and some early traction. If we don't get in we'll still be focusing on launching, traction, and listening to our customers early on.
we want this as much as the next guy, if not more, but we also know getting in is not the end result, it's only the beginning. it's gonna get much tougher once you're in!
the advice i got a few week ago really helped:
"don't put all your eggs in one basket"
The more NOs you hear the closer you'll get to YES (unless...)
Cisco systems, pitched 70+ VCs/investors before it got funding, similar stories for intel, ebay, amazon, google, twitter, and so on...
To many people decide to line themselves up and be compared. It can make more sense to separate from the pack and be creative and pitch other likely sources.
It's not about getting into YC. It's about getting your idea off the ground and getting funded. If all you have is the wherewithal or creativity to apply to YC or Techstars etc you aren't an entrepreneur.
I got a job in tech years ago at a valley company that I was in no way qualified for by getting in an airplane and flying to a trade show in CA to walk the floor and meet with sales managers. I had no competition. Even though I was only marginally qualified for any position at this company I got a job.
So I work on my projects at night, and classes during the day. I get internships in the bay, and continue to build and iterate on what I've made. I have no intention of stopping at YC, or just building these projects to fluff up a resume. I do both of these things because they are worthwhile to me. But realistically, I can't just leave school and start a business, because my loan debt would kill me and my business. Without some sort of connection to funding I'm dead in the water. So I will continue to build my personal projects with my co-founder, and use them to learn and work towards having a sustainable business that someone wants to fund.
I'd be curious to hear your feedback.
In some ways, a start-up is remarkably more difficult than any structured class. It is not a co-incidence that many of the most successful start-ups ( i.e. Google / Facebook et.al. ) started as projects.
Investors like to think about markets and path to revenue. But to build stuff , you'd need to love the problem itself and care deeply about what you're building. Because at many points in the ride, the financial or commercial end will not be in sight.
Another correct question perhaps is " How to pick an addictive problem ? "
A group that some of us love :
One of the stacks Gremlin works atop is neo4j which raised an excess of 10M recently.. again I would have to warrant that the game is to pick a difficult problem , preferably few years ahead before it becomes " hot ".
Here's a powerful section from a beautiful film:
" He does, an assignment to refurbish the Sistine Chapel for him. But after an attempt at some saints, he leaves Rome, and flees to his beloved Carrara. There, surrounded by mountains, he has a vision at sunset and suddenly knows what he must do. Obtaining Julius's reluctant permission, he sets to work covering that modest ceiling with tremendous figures, a bearded Jehovah, a recumbent Adam touched to life by a divine spark, the world's most famous fresco painted from a homemade scaffolding; in spite of illness, missed meals, filth, deprivation, cold, an injury that nearly costs him his eye and more, including the Pope's indifference to his intense passion for his art, Michelangelo endures. "When will you make an end?" Julius cries. "When I have done," the artist insists. "
 - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058886/reviews
We just want to have an opportunity to work on our idea full-time.
Although after reading this post, I feel more sure of myself about the issue. Mainly because he didn't mention anything about the number of founders per startup, but purely the quality.
Glad this was posted.
What happens when a startup like ours is not building their product (due to complicated legal issues) but they're talking to customers? How can we show that we've been doing our homework in this regard?
- When will it actually be accessed? Can we continue make updates after the application deadline?
- Should the demo be tailored so that anyone can use it without one of us guiding him?
Would help understand how you come up with deep insights.
Plus it would be an interesting read I'm sure.
The link that pg gives to the drobbox app is full of win. It isn't about shared storage 'per se' its about the things that currently suck and will suck less with less effort when this capability is available.
Insight is looking past the problem and finding the underlying intent, and then re-working the solution based on that intent.
It's not important that the video have high production values, or that you sell us on the idea within it.
Even if we're fluent in english, it's not natural for us to speak it (much less against a camera) so it ends up sounding like we're reading from a script or something.